The Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.
In the summer of 2015, while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, I had the privilege of interviewing 14 veterans from World War II and the Vietnam War as part of an internship with Rep. Brad Ashford’s office. The experience opened my eyes to a different generation of soldiers (I work primarily with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at UNO’s Office of Military and Veteran Services).
My first interview was with Darrald Harsh, a pilot who served in Europe and was captured by the Germans after parachuting from his plane. Harsh talked about his time in the POW camp, which was liberated by Gen. George Patton’s army.
Each interview followed a basic formula, starting with an overview of their lives before enlistment.
Helen Shadle, an Army nurse who served in Japan during World War II, discussed growing up as the youngest sibling in a large family, living on a farm, hitchhiking to school, and enlisting in the Army the first chance she got. She said the military offered her the opportunity to advance in an era when such opportunities for people like her were few and far between.
Many of the veterans held back the worst details of their war experiences. For some, mundane details were among their most cherished memories of deployment.
Jack Hetterich, who served in Europe, described the harrowing conditions of the march from France to Germany in the middle of winter. He recalled how his favorite care packages were filled with hand-knitted socks and treats that could be shared with fellow soldiers.
Bob Alden, who served in the Navy during World War II, said if you have the opportunity, enlist. “You learn a lot about other places and other people—what their lives are like,” he said, adding, “You survive if you make the right decisions.”
According to George Ostermiller, who served in Japan and assisted with the post-atomic bomb cleanup of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, “There’s nothing good about a war. It made me realize how fortunate we were at the time.”
Ostermiller said the military taught him about “patience, honesty, and integrity.” A feeling shared by many of the veterans, including Alden. “You’re responsible for all your decisions, every day,” Alden said. “All through military life, you have decisions you have to make on your own.”
All the interviews ended with the same question: “What would you like future generations to know about your experiences?” Harsh and many of the veterans expressed a similar response to that question: “Love your country, stay good. Do what they tell you, and don’t hold a grudge,” he said.
The Veterans History Project offers an excellent way to give back to your community. Contributing interviewers have ranged from Eagle Scouts to nursing-home volunteers.
Each interview takes 60 to 90 minutes, and the experience can be life changing. To get started, visit the Library of Congress website. If you are interested in helping, reach out to your local places of worship and retirement homes. Connect with your senators and representatives for assistance in recording these interviews with the Library of Congress.
Visit loc.gov/vets for more information and to download an interview packet.
The author of this article, Leah Meyer, is the director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This article appears in the May/June edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.